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Business, Featured - Written by on Friday, June 13, 2008 14:26 - 5 Comments

Denis Hancock
Wikinomics in action: an interview with the founders of crowdSPRING

A couple of weeks ago I put up a post about a company called crowdSPRING, a new player in the “crowdsourcing for creative products” space (who contacted us directly – keep those “wikinomics in action” stories coming!). Co-founders Ross Kimbarovsky and Mike Samson were kind enough to sit down for an interview with me a couple of days later, and they provided a lot of information that I thought would be of interest to wikinomics readers – it’s a very interesting company with some well thought out ideas and plans.

Below is a summary of some of the highlights of the interview (note that I’ve reduced the questions that I asked down to their key points, moved a lot of stuff around, and left out quite a few just to manage the length of the post a bit – this is not a transcript. I have not altered the responses from Ross and Mike, and I have checked with them to ensure that what I’m presenting here is an accurate representation of the conversation).

It is worth noting that, at the time the interview took place, the company had been live for about two weeks. We look forward to following up in the coming months to report on their progress, particularly in relation to the collaborative aspects of the platform and how reputation profiles are coming into play – a particular area of interest that will likely be the topic of a future post.

Q: What’s the “elevator pitch” for crowdSPRING?

MIKE: It’s pretty simple. We’re a creative marketplace for buyers and providers of creative services. For buyers, it’s a place to post a creative project, to watch as the world contributes ideas, and ultimately choose the one they like. For creatives, it’s a stage for their creativity where title and experience don’t matter.

Q: What’s your target market?

MIKE: We’re targeting the small and mid-sized business market who don’t have easy access to these services at a reasonable price.

Q: How many projects have there been so far, and can you speak to the potential size of the market?

ROSS: … in the couple of weeks that we’ve been in business, we’ve run roughly 60 projects so far. We’re currently at a pace of about 7-10 new projects a day and that’s growing. Our Web site traffic is growing 100% week to week. And so ultimately, we hope to gain a pretty healthy number of projects because we see this demand in the U.S. alone. I think last year, the number I read was 18 million small and mid-sized businesses. There are 485,000 new businesses in the U.S. being created every single month. And these statistics are exponentially growing when you look to the world. And so this is a huge, huge market. And we think we’ve given these businesses a great outlet to source their creative needs. [update as of June 12th: 158 projects, 2,200 registered users]

Q: What is the geographic distribution of the collaborators on crowdSPRING?

ROSS: …in the first two weeks we had business from 122 different countries. We always anticipated getting a pretty rapid acceptance worldwide on the creative side. One of the interesting things for us has been on the buyer side. Roughly, half of our projects are being posted by buyers outside of the United States, which is really remarkable.

…we’ve been contacted by media outside of the U.S. who are looking at some of those trends, too. And they’re interested as well because, for whatever reason, this model has become very attractive to Italian, to French, to English businesses. And we’re seeing a lot of traffic from the kinds of countries that we like a great deal, such as China.

Q: What is the mix of contributors and winners thus far?

MIKE: I think your initial observation that there are professional designers, that there are people that are studying to be professional designers, and hobbyists (is correct). There’s a pretty healthy mix of both and what we’re amazed with is the breadth of participation and where they come from. The person who designed our logo was a janitor who worked the night shift. He lives in Canada. He’s 28 years old. So we’ve sourced our own creative needs through this process. The person who designed our Web site is a graphic student in the Netherlands. One of the recent winners of a project lives in a small town, small village in India. We’re getting people from across the globe and what’s interesting with the crowdSPRING model is it really doesn’t matter where they live or who they are or what their experience is because the buyer gets to pick whatever they like best. So these are anecdotal bits of information we find after the fact, but we’re always amazed when a janitor gets to compete in a level playing field, OR that a student is picked and paid significant sums of money and beats out lots of bigger firms with more experience.

Q: What approaches are you guys taking to deal with the IP issues crowd sourcing platforms often face?

ROSS: The single biggest challenge we found when we started researching was that most people either were not comfortable with intellectual property issues, and this was built on both the buyer and creative side, and even those that were comfortable were really worried about cost of protecting what they were purchasing with legal agreements. And so one of our starting points, when we first talked about building a marketplace, was developing a really strong infrastructure for protecting intellectual property. And you can see that across the board with everything we do. We’ve introduced… a pretty innovative process where every project on crowdSPRING is protected by a legal agreement that’s customized to the buyer’s specifications. So depending on the country the buyer comes from and their project, we dynamically build a legal contract for them, Most buyers take advantage of that, but we also give them the ability to upload their own. In fact, we have not had a single buyer yet in a hundred projects that’s declined to use the contract.

Second, we have pretty rigorous copyright policies on our site, and from time to time they’ve been used. So people see potential violations of copyright and they notify us. We have a formal process that we go through to review those complaints and address them. We’ve also spent a significant amount of effort – and we’ll increase that effort – at educating our users, and that includes spending time in our forums, writing about copyright issues, writing about copyright interest in our blog. We’re going to be introducing some additional features such as watermarking and I know one of the things you wanted to talk to us about are our IP registry and crowdSPRING’s partnership with IP registry where every item sold at crowdSPRING will automatically be registered. So in this way, we hope to meet the needs of every business that transacts in crowdSPRING, give them an opportunity to protect the intellectual property and their purchasing in a really very efficient low-cost way.

MIKE: … our legal agreements are fundamentally driven by the project. Let’s say you need a logo for your business. So you describe what you need, you set a price, you set the dates, you define what deliverables you need, and you tell us who the contracting party is, so if it’s for yourself or for your company, you also tell us where the buyer comes from, what country. Based on the buyer’s country and the country of the ultimately winning creator, we’ll assemble dynamically a contract that gives you really the most favorable provision for you.

Q: What differentiates crowdSPRING from other crowd sourcing competitors?

MIKE: Ross has already talked about the IP protection and we think that that’s huge. The next differentiator that we think offers great value is our escrow of payment services. On the front side, when the buyer posts a project, we require the buyer to actually escrow the full amount of the fees with us. So one of the things we learned in our research from creatives was that they’re willing to do this work and take a chance. Roll the dice a little bit but they want to know that the buyer is not window-shopping, that the buyer is not going to disappear on them or abandon or cancel the project. And by escrowing the funds, we address that directly.

Q: How does the ratings system work?

MIKE: During the project, a buyer can score each entry using that…a star rating system. In addition, they can provide commentaries, text feedback. We also have a feature for crowd scoring that anybody can go in and look at a project and say, “I would rate this one of five. I would rate this one of two. I would rate this one of three.” We are not allowing creatives who are participating in a given project to rate their own or other entries into that project. We don’t want them gaming the system in that sense. At the end of a project, the buyer and the winning creative – rate each other in a way that’s very similar to how eBay ratings work between a buyer and a seller, and thus develop a reputational foundation.

Q: How are the incentives distributed? Is it winner takes all?

MIKE: At the moment, our model is the winner takes the full fee. And ultimately that reflects the way creative services are purchased offline. But there are certainly variations of that model, and that was one of the interesting things we actually thought about when we read your wiki blog post and really started reflecting because we had given a lot of thought to how we could extend our model to a more collaborative framework and also offer more sophisticated services. So we do see down the line the ability to collaborate and to have multiple people share in the award in different kinds of projects. At the moment, by the way, any buyer can offer multiple awards. So we’ve had a few buyers that have said, “I will award the top two or three designs,” and multiple people have won.

ROSS: It’s buyer’s choice, so the buyer picks the winner, pure and simple. Creatives are very careful not to step on each other’s toes. One of the things were doing is building a community, and I think that shows in both their communication with one another and with us. Design is all inspirational so there’s always going to be something that inspires a creative. It could be a comment from a buyer. It could be something someone else did. But generally people are pretty good about not stepping on each other’s toes. But ultimately, buyer picks. It’s very simple.

Q: Could you discuss how crowdSPRING works in terms of collaboration?

Mike: There is an interesting collaborative effect that happens over the course of a project. And I’ll just go back to Ross’ point that ultimately the buyer picks. But the interesting effect is we see behavior on the part of creatives that many of them just hang back and watch. They don’t post an entry immediately. They watch the other entries, they watch the buyer’s feedback, they see what direction the buyer is interested in going. And then later in the project, the second half of the project or two-thirds through the project, you see a spike in entries as those people start jumping in. And I think it reflects their own work habits and how they control their personal capacity. They don’t want to jump into a project until they feel confident they know what a buyer is looking for.

Q: The natural question would then be why does anyone jump in at the start?

MIKE: I say that because, you know, first of all, 25 years of working with artists and being married to one, they cannot stop themselves. And I say “they” because I don’t consider myself a creative. But frankly, they can’t stop themselves. They love participating on this level. And you know, the feedback we get from them is “Win or lose, I’m having a great time.”

Q: Do you see a scale issue for the platform? What I mean is that from a creative perspective, competing with (say) 20 other designers for a $200 prize is a lot more attractive then competing with 1,000…

MIKE: Well, there’s…so there’s two points to address there. The first is, what level of competition is a given creative willing to jump in on? And frankly, that’s a personal choice. One of the beauties of this model is if you want to participate in a project, you can. And if you don’t want to, you don’t have to. So it’s surely up to the individual how they want to participate, how they choose projects in which to participate. The other half of it is, that knowing a buyer’s reputation is very valuable for creatives and we think that they would leverage that information in determining which projects they want to participate in. Some buyers, quite frankly, are better than others. The value judgment made is, what kind of feedback do they give? How valuable is their feedback? Because one of the things that designers want, that creatives want, is guidance. They want to learn, they want feedback. Some of the buyers give absolutely zero and other buyers are incredibly active. The ones who are incredibly active are going to develop very strong reputations and the ones who are not so much will have reputations that are not so much. That’s a great way for a creative to determine if they want to participate in a given project. And we think that as the site matures, you’re going to see creatives tapping into that reputational information and leveraging it in that way.


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Jude Fiorillo
Jun 13, 2008 17:27

I always get excited when I read about new companies like this, because I think it points to a change in the way businesses interact with their customers and business partners via the internet (in this case freelancers). There is a continuous shift where we are seeing more people living out parts of their lives over the internet, so why shouldn’t the same be true for a business’ ‘life’? Their evolving business model requires increasing online integration – here it is outsourcing project work online and providing compensation for it. Time will tell how businesses react to increased access to talent resources over the internet, and what methods they will use to efficiently tap into those tools.

Jun 13, 2008 17:53

@Denis – Mike and I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk further about crowdSPRING. We think we have a huge opportunity to help radically transform the creative industry, and we thank you for generously sharing a part of our story with your readers.

@Jude – very good points. The question is no longer whether the creative industry (and other industries) will change. The question is: How soon? Those who stood in the way of the masses (Getty Images when iStockphoto launched, for example) simply can’t avoid the reality that the world, and the very talented people in it, will sometimes change the rules. And we’re here to do our part to help.

Jeff Crites
Jun 13, 2008 18:05

Glad I found this interview. Great peek at CrowdSPRING. Best wishes to this Open Innovation outfit.

Jun 13, 2008 19:26

Thanks so much, Jeff.

Wikinomics » Blog Archive » Introducing chTONGUEeek: a wikinomics enabled humor site
Dec 9, 2008 8:16

[...] readers may remember I wrote about my interview with the founders of crowdSPRING back in June. The idea behind the company is simple – anybody can post a description of creative [...]

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